Being more aware of customers with dementia and the challenges they face could vastly improve their shopping experience

Unless someone in your family or friendship group has dementia, you may think that it doesn’t really affect you. But there are a whopping 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to more than one million by 2025 and two million by 2051. So the likelihood is that you are already serving people with dementia on a daily basis, and if you aren’t then you soon will be.

“Two-thirds of people with dementia live in the community, so it is likely that many businesses have customers living with dementia, even if they don’t realise it,” says Karishma Chandaria, Dementia Friendly Communities programme manager at the Alzheimer’s Society.

One retailer who has plenty of experience in helping people with dementia is Binny Amin, who owns Londis Blean in Kent. “We get a lot of customers coming in with dementia,” he says.

He has dealt with some particularly extreme cases. “If it’s really advanced then sometimes they don’t really know what they’re doing. One lady walked past the shop naked. I saw her and took her home and called the ambulance.”

Chris Grimes of Blockley Village Shop in Gloucestershire is also used to dealing with people with dementia. “In Blockley we have seven times the national average of people over the age of 90! We also have sheltered housing so we often get a few people wandering around dazed and falling over outside.”

He claims that having strong community links can be a big help. “We’re the only shop in the village so we’re a real hub and the first port of call for many people. If someone finds a [disorientated] old person they bring them to us. We know where everyone lives as we do deliveries. We know absolutely everybody here and if there’s someone we don’t know, we’ll find someone who does within two or three people.”

But dementia can manifest itself in all manner of ways and in many cases it may not be obvious that someone has the condition. So retailers need to be vigilant in order to spot the signs and help.

Understanding the signs

“Dementia affects everyone differently,” says Chandaria. “Someone living with dementia may feel confused even when in a familiar environment, and could feel anxious, depressed or angry about their forgetfulness.

“People with dementia have problems with day-to-day memory – remembering a shopping list, making decisions or have difficulty finding the right word for something. For example, a person may know that they are looking for a green salad ingredient, but be unable to remember the word ‘cucumber’. Visuospatial perception such as judging distances and seeing objects in three dimensions may also be an issue, along with losing track of the day or date leading the person to become confused about where they are.”


225,000 people will develop dementia this year

34% of people with dementia don’t feel part of their community

61% of those with dementia felt depressed recently

40% of people with dementia felt lonely recently

Source: Alzheimer’s Society

They can also encounter problems at the checkout, such as difficulty counting out money, coping with new technology and payment methods, feeling rushed or worrying that they will forget to pay, she says. In addition, many worry about the reactions of other people, for example people not understanding their difficulties, staff not being confident to help and the reaction of security staff to unusual behaviour.

Susan Connolly, who owns four Spar stores in Wiltshire, advises retailers to watch out for subtle signs that someone may have dementia. “It’s the little changes, for example, if Mrs Smith comes in every day and buys the Telegraph and then she suddenly buys the Daily Sport, then that could be a sign. They may not recognise a modern-day chocolate bar or it might be that someone has dirty clothes on, for example.”

Chris is very careful not to fluster any customers he suspects may have dementia. “One lady often wanders around the store for about 25 minutes, not quite knowing what’s going on. We chat to her and let her get on with it.

“It’s about providing a caring, stress-free environment. She’s lived here all her life. The shop is a very non-threatening place for her to come. My advice is not to make a big scene; they don’t want you raising your voice and calling across the store to them. Treat them like your grandma and look after them. We are attuned to it and don’t exacerbate the issue.”

Susan is also of the opinion that if the customer isn’t upset and isn’t causing any harm, then it is fine to let them carry on undisturbed. “We generally let them shop, but say ‘if you need any help, just give me a call’. Just knowing you are there is a positive.” she says. “Otherwise, you’ll put them in a distressing situation. It’s a case of knowing people well in the first place. We have a lady who used to come in by herself. She thought that the manager of the store was her grandson, so there were indicators of dementia. We always go along with the person’s beliefs as it’s often easier, rather than risk upsetting customers.”

On some occasions, however, it is necessary to step in. There is sheltered housing near Broadway Convenience Store in Edinburgh and residents often come into the store with their carers. “We’ll treat every customer all in the same way: with respect,” says owner Dennis Williams. “I would say that it doesn’t matter what store you’re in – customer service is king. It’s about building up a relationship over time and getting to know the carers as well.

“One lady from the sheltered housing was coming in on her own and buying a lot of scratch cards, spending a lot of money, and we were a bit concerned, so my wife Linda had a chat with her carer and we agreed that we wouldn’t sell them to her anymore. Some people would just take the money and not question it, but we’re really into customer service.”

Getting advice

Getting to know the local carers is a good idea, claims Susan. “If a customer has dementia, speak to their carers and family and get their advice on how to help them. We often walk them home: it’s a good way of meeting everyone.”

Another way to build relations with people with dementia is to contact local care homes. “We have a couple of dementia centres nearby and we went there for advice,” says Binny. “I wanted to learn how me and my staff could look after these customers.”

As a result of speaking with care experts, Binny is now much more confident about helping customers with dementia. “We’re a lot more conscious of customers with dementia being in-store now and we go out of our way to make them feel comfortable. The centres said to keep talking to them because they’re trying to recollect memories and piece things together, so just listen to them. Sometimes they start as confused, but then they might recognise us. Staff know to put down what they’re doing and make themselves available for them. They might need something, or they might just need contact.”

Susan also decided to find out more about dealing with customers with dementia. “I used to be a carer so dementia has always fascinated me. I went to Bournemouth with Dementia Friends, which is a subdivision of the Alzheimer’s Society, to do training and become a Dementia Champion.

“The dementia population is growing, so more and more people need to be aware,” says Susan. “I wanted our store to become dementia friendly and for all of our staff to become Dementia Friends.”

Susan explains that the course gave her a greater understanding of how dementia can affect people and how retailers can make small changes to improve people’s shopping experience. “The dementia training is really good and it makes you look at it from a different angle,” she says. “For example, someone with more advanced stage dementia could walk into the store and see the black mat on the floor and think it’s a black hole. So if you see they’re afraid then talk to them and see if you can help. It could just be that changing your mat colour could vastly improve their experience and enable them to live independently.”

As a Dementia Champion, Susan can train all her staff in dementia awareness. But she isn’t stopping there. “I’ve been talking to [Spar managing director] Debbie Robinson and saying I’d be willing to go to different Spar stores and train people up.”

Being clued up on dementia isn’t only beneficial to those with the condition, as it can also offer genuine business benefits. “If every Spar store was trained it would really set us apart from the multiples,” says Susan.  “We are the hub of the community because of the work we do and the care homes all ring us up to do deliveries.

“Everybody should go on a dementia awareness course. If you and your staff are aware, you can make a big difference.”


Dementia-friendly customer service: Increasing staff awareness about dementia will help to ensure that your employees are patient and can listen to customers who may have dementia, providing them with clear and straightforward answers

Assistance: Approaching customers to ask whether they need help to find an item will benefit all customers, including people with dementia.

Support: Helping customers to pack at the checkout ensures that people with dementia aren’t excluded and are offered the same service as others. It also means they don’t need to have the confidence to ask for help - for example, if they are struggling with which items they would usually bag together/separately.

Signposting: Helping a person who may have dementia to find entrances, exits and toilets is something all staff should be aware of, particularly those who spend the most time in these areas, such as security staff.

Payment: Where someone appears to be struggling, colleagues should offer help to count their money.

Source: Alzheimer’s Society


Training in dementia awareness

Understanding the impact of dementia and how it changes customer needs across all shopping methods is vital, points out the Alzheimer’s Society. As a result it has developed specialist training to help raise retailers’ awareness.

Dementia Friends is a free initiative run by the society. Participants can complete a 45-minute session to become a Dementia Friend, or a one-day course to become a Dementia Friends Champion.

Once a Dementia Friends Champion you can then return to your store and train your own staff in helping those with dementia.

Retailers can sign up to become a Dementia Friend at

The Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Friendly Communities Team is also working with the retail sector to look at how retailers can become more dementia-friendly. It is currently running a programme focusing on improving inclusion and quality of life for people living with dementia.

You can find out more at its website,

The Alzheimer’s Society also provides a National Dementia Helpline on 0300 222 11 22.

Source: Alzheimer’s Society